tumblr_m39yraMvRx1qluawko1_400As someone who, personally, worships at a traditionally liturgical church, I’m happy to see a lot more Protestant denominations, many traditionally non-liturgical, starting to think about “liturgy.” Because liturgical worship has, for me, circumvented a great deal of my attempt to manage my own worship experience. Liturgy is something difficult to place, inhering as it does in the ambiguous space between sacrament and everyday experience, not fully definable as either.

But there’s something suspicious, too, about the trendiness and somewhat forced seriousness with which non-liturgical churches are talking about liturgy. I think of the biblical story of Uzzah, among others, who was given the gift of carrying the Ark. When he took responsibility for it – tried to keep it from touching the ground and thus managed it himself – he incurred divine disapproval. He was inevitably not viewing the Ark as gift, but as instrument, something requiring our management to help Israel flourish.

Treating graces, given from outside ourselves to be simply enjoyed, as instruments to be manipulated to our own (theologically justified) ends is an old problem. Moses being denied entry to the Promised Land for his complicity in scouting ahead is another example: some gifts are just not meant for us humans’ management and oversight. But managing stuff we shouldn’t, the urge to control, the libido dominandi, is our oldest line of business as humans.

Anyway, the trendy, buzzword-y status of “liturgy” now should make us skeptical: “liturgical theology”, “liturgical community practices”, etc. It’s always seemed to me that the benefit of liturgy is a sort of grace in encountering God: the grace not of having to use your own words, but someone else’s (better) words to address the divine. The great Catholic fiction writer Andre Dubus gives as good a definition/illustration as any of the meaning of liturgy:

Each morning [at Mass] I try, each morning I fail, and know that always I will be a creature who, looking at Father Paul and the altar, and uttering prayers, will be distracted by scrambled eggs, horses, the weather, and memories and daydreams that have nothing to do with the sacrament I am about to receive. I can receive, though: the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.

Andre Dubus, “A Father’s Story


There are instances when liturgy can serve as a good metaphor for using practices to create a certain environment: James K.A. Smith’s speeches articulating a vision for Calvin College are an example. But there are other times when it is less a valid metaphor. For example, evening prayer is a liturgy; morning quiet time is not. Liturgy is about participating, yes, but about participating in a role graciously assigned to us – not one we invent. I wonder if thinking of daily life (as Smith lends himself to in his “cultural liturgies” series) as liturgical changes anything at all, besides diluting the meaning of one of the Church’s oldest, most beautiful, and ideally most distinctive forms.

Liturgies have the peculiar identity of writings that achieve a perfect unity of literary form and spiritual content. They are not affective words, meant to engineer a certain emotional state, to be drawn up on pastoral whims. Anyone trying to write their own liturgy does the form discredit; writers as skilled and Spirit-visited as Thomas Cranmer, St. Theodore the Studite, or Tertullian don’t come around more than once every few centuries.

Untitled-1And whenever there’s a service (not uncommon now) mixing Cranmerian Collects, excerpts from the Heidelberg Confession and the Shorter Westminster Catechism and the Preface to the Barmen Declaration, the Prayers of John Chrysostom, etc, you have (several) beautiful, gracious liturgical forms being manipulated into something like a tool for spiritual formation. Seriously, my Episcopalian/Anglican friends dont’ know half as much about the Book of Common Prayer as my Evangelical ones, who will casually reference the differences between ’59, ’62, ’29, etc. Here again, the emphasis is on editing, mixing to get what I myself, personally, think is the best form of worship – the resurgence of the “I” in worship, the need to control the divine gratuity of worship.

That’s not to say that mixing is bad – far from it – but only that it applies a cafeteria method to something decidedly (and graciously) non-cafeterian, i.e. that these services may be beautiful, good, and charged with the Holy Spirit – but they cannot properly be called “liturgical” and, if they are, they manifest the anxiety for control, for personal determination of God’s Word (theo-logy not in the sense of “the word of God” but rather “the study of God”) that itself reveals a difficulty in resting in the gift.

At its best, liturgy is a received form of worship, exactly what Dubus described it to be. But the human heart excels at taking divine gifts and turning them into tools, to be crafted by us and used on others. We cannot engineer our encounters with God, however much we may want to.

The grace of this, of course, is that any prayer or writing carries the potential to instantiate the Church or give us a flash of attunement to God’s presence and love. But I wonder if there’s really such a thing as “liturgical theology.” Liturgy transcends theology; is above it and at once more fundamental to experience; it paradoxically utters the ineffable. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s language of theological-aesthetic form is helpful here:

The appearance of the form, as revelation in the depths, is an indissoluble union of two things. It is a real presence of the depths, of the whole of reality, and it is a real pointing beyond itself into those depths.

The Glory of the Lord, vol 1

A liturgical form that both contains the depths of God’s splendor and points beyond itself to those depths is a difficult thing; in a liturgical context, the best analogy of this unity between form and content would be a masterful stylist like Hemingway, whose terse prose correlates perfectly with his repressed characters’ experience in the world, or a poet like Langston Hughes whose rhythm and meter in “The Weary Blues” sets his piano player’s mood perfectly. This is extraordinarily rare in fiction or poetry, and all the more difficult when it comes to the things of God. But the objectivity of the liturgical form, its givenness, relieves us from structuring our own doxological ascent to God. Again, non-liturgical worship has the same possibilities of the Spirit’s presence (thinking here especially of Gospel churches), but we cannot call something liturgical which rejects this relief, nor can we subsume liturgy under the category of spiritual formation.

Liturgy bypasses emotion; it is concerned with being passively in-formed in a beautiful way, a passive activity expressed by Eliot as “teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still” in his meditations on Ash Wednesday. “Be still and know that I am God” – the momentary stillness of my own irrepressible spiritual strivings, for the right words or impulses or feelings, is profoundly comforting. An active passivity, like one dancing but always as the one led.

A dancer cannot reinvent the form and follow the language of love simultaneously, and – to risk overdoing the metaphor – the Holy Spirit always leads. Harmony is easily lost when we move from our position of reading scripts to engineering them. The grace of God’s presence, of course, is unchanging, shining forth in-dependently of our religious machinations. And yet the freedom, in Christ, to be spiritual recipients could allow us to recognize it more clearly.